Danny was totally blown away! He had seen his family physician presumably for a routine physical and cholesterol check, but his doctor found a “lump” when examining Danny’s abdomen. “How could there be anything growing in my belly? I feel fine,” Danny exclaimed. On the day of his physical, Danny exercised before 6, rode his bike, showered and dressed, ate breakfast with his wife and boys, drove to his office in Portland, sat checking his emails waiting for the office to open, saw a couple of clients, then drove to his doctor. All before 10!

Instead of receiving a card for a return visit in six months, Danny was handed a requisition for a CT scan at Maine Medical Center. The indication for the exam was “large mass in the abdomen.” When Danny arrived home after his CT, he discovered an email with an appointment for a needle biopsy of the “large mass.” A few days later, Danny found himself in my office, referred after the biopsy revealed a high-grade lymphoma. “How scary that my insides have been betraying me and I didn’t know it,” Danny shared with me at the consultation. “I was a little tired, but who wouldn’t be from a job with long hours, a new home to fix up, and a wife and two active young boys?”

As Danny sat holding the results of the CT scan and the biopsy in the waiting room and looking at the office sign over the secretary’s window, he knew his life was now radically changed. He would never be the same. How should he live from now on? Several acquaintances told Danny, “Live each day as if it were your last.” Danny recalled that the original phrase “carpe diem” in Latin was coined by the Roman poet Horace, who lived during the reign of Caesar Augustus (1st Century B.C.). Many other sages, ancient and modern, have espoused that same mantra, including Sir Thomas More, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jean-Paul Sartre, Mahatma Gandhi, and Mother Teresa. Even Elvis. Danny told me he tried it for a week: “It was exhausting – trying to live each day as if it were my last, along with my full schedule and chemo added in. And feeling guilty when I couldn’t do it!”

While Danny started to doze off from weariness in my office during the first visits waiting for more blood tests and X-rays, he became skeptical that carpe diem related to his own life. During a lengthy session in the treatment room receiving chemotherapy, Danny had his eureka moment. On days when he could hardly keep on his feet from the treatment, he realized he had to prioritize what he could do and think. On other days that he was confined to bed and could only think, he had to narrow his focus even further – to the essentials of life from which he could get help. On these “rotten” days, Danny discovered the essentials in his life were someone to get him through the cancer and the chemo and someone to be with him. For Danny, the only ones that could satisfy these needs were God and his wife.

With the help of his rabbi, Danny found Scripture passages that codified what Danny was trying to understand. God fulfilled the need for someone to get him through the chemotherapy: “The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer; my God is my deliverer in whom I take refuge. He is my shield, and the horn of my Salvation, my stronghold. I call to the Lord, who is worthy of praise, and I am saved from my enemies” (Psalm 18:2-3). Danny’s wife fulfilled his need to have someone to be with him: “Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life” (Proverbs 31:11-12).

Danny discovered for him that carpe diem did not always apply to his life in all its situations. When Danny was very sick, he realized he could not live like today was the last day of his life with an exhausting number of actions and activities. Rather than struggling with what he could not do, he had to find rest in what was essential to him. “It must be about resting,” Danny quipped. “That’s in an old Talmudic prayer.”

Dr. Delvyn C. Case Jr. is a hematologist/oncologist, playwright and director, columnist, and consultant to the Department of Spiritual Care at Maine Medical Center in Portland.